I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to find the right words to address the occurrences in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, and a host of other police killings that have taken place over the last few months. More specifically, I’ve been curious about how we talk about the micro and macro impacts of these situations on campus life for students and professionals. Many of our Student Affairs colleagues have spoken and written at length about the connection between these off campus situations and the experiences that many students and staff members endure on and off campus. The American College Personnel Association (ACPA), among other organizations, have put out formal statements, held webinars, and facilitated dialogues for us to think about the experiences of various members of our communities with which we may not identify. I can’t help but wonder: where are the institutional responses? How are we making the case for the safety of our students? How are we making connections to understand that these incidents are connected, and not relegated to black and brown folks outside of our campus walls?
Institutions like as Columbia University, Georgetown University, and Harvard University have taken a stand by allowing students the opportunity to reschedule finals for a more convenient and less toxic time. Yet, few have followed their lead. Not every school or department within these institutions is buying into the idea of sustained trauma and the impact of protesting on a student’s ability to focus on school work. Where are the rest of our voices? Why are we silent about something that impacts all of America’s population – and some significantly more than others? As Student Affairs Professionals, we are often among the first people and offices to which students turn when they need a place to vent their frustrations, ask questions, and create dialogue about these situations. We are the ones to whom they come and try to talk through difficult situations. This is admiral work done by committed people and I know that by writing here I am preaching to the proverbial choir. Nevertheless, the question remains: who do we turn to and where do we go? Where do those who are fully committed, engaged, and eventually exasperated turn?
There are always small segments of the field where individuals are connecting the dots between what’s happening off campus to what’s happening on campus to remind us that we are a microcosm and a reflection of the world at large. There are people who are committed to teaching, creating, and facilitating socially just spaces and works. How many of us are listening? Are we trusting those voices as perspectives of reason or do we write them off? When reading the comment sections on articles posted by The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed I am constantly reminded that not all educators and administrators see these issues as significant or even related to the campuses we serve. Many have written on Twitter time and time again wondering what others would have done during the Civil Rights Movement; now is the time to find out. Now is the time for us to take a stand, and do so in a way that supports the physical, social, and emotional well-being of those who use this field to teach and inform students and colleagues alike of of the significance of institutionalized hegemony.
We spend a lot of time talking about self-care in this profession, but in light of the last few weeks, I’ve come to question how professionals of color, Queer and Trans* professionals, those from poor and working class backgrounds, and allies can actually take care of themselves when many of these same people continue to voice the painful reality that they feel unsafe both at home and at work. I wonder about what they do when many more of our more privileged colleagues continue to deny that these experiences as part of larger disenfranchisement. I’ve read the experiences of various Vassar professionals who’ve come forward. I have listened to the stories of my favorite professors of color who discuss the ways they try to avoid being the last people in an academic building late at night as a means of protecting themselves. I’ve also reflected on my own experiences within the field. As a young professional committed to Social Justice, it’s easy for me to put people in the spotlight and bring attention to why an idea, thought, or experience is multifaceted. This does not mean that every person I attempt to talk to is willing to listen.
Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself triggered in my own work when students and staff have said things like “Mike Brown isn’t the best representation for a cause” or “I could never be Mayor in Savannah, Georgia due to reverse racism.” These statements make me question how we value life, and what determines that worth. Am I never to make a mistake and if I do shall it be deemed punishable by death? Deep down inside, I’ve wondered if some members of our community truly believe that only those who’ve “done everything right” deserve to live. I don’t think of my life as any more valuable than Mike Brown’s because of the awards I’ve won, the colleges I’ve attended, etc. To me, quite simply, a life is a life. The same applies to those we think of least in society. It’s easy to talk to these people about why the things they’ve said are hurtful, harmful, and not focused on the larger picture. It’s not easy to stop myself from crying at home, or talking with my partner about the lapse in education, understanding, and experiences that these people have. It certainly doesn’t make it easier to acknowledge, however privately, that their words cut me deeply.
I’ve been asked by what feels like hundreds of people if I’m okay, or why I look so sad and the truth is that I don’t know. Some days are easier than others. On days when my seven-year-old brother tells me the police asked him questions, not so much. So how do we start to care for ourselves when home and work both feel dangerous? How do we find spaces where we can talk about these frustrations without consequence of losing our jobs, homes, and livelihoods? How do we move forward, when it feels like the rooms we enter and spaces we are a part of are not built for or by us and instead use us to fulfill a diversity and inclusion requirement? I would challenge everyone in this field, young and seasoned professionals, practitioner and professor, graduate or undergraduate student, to think about the ways in which our words, our actions, and what we do impact the work and school experiences of our peers. I would challenge them to spend more time focusing on how we care for one another.
No amount of self-care can outwork a toxic work environment.